Letter from the President
“There is nothing more practical than a good theory.”
Our history at Teachers College is a testament to the truth of that observation, made by the pioneering psychologist Kurt Lewin.
Like all great institutions, the College has produced many compelling ideas — but what distinguishes us is our track record of applying them to each new era’s most profound challenges. That legacy begins with our founding mission in 1887 to prepare a new kind of teacher to serve immigrant children, and it ranges from our creation of nursing education and nutrition education during the early 20th century to the work of Kurt Lewin’s pupil, TC Professor Emeritus Morton Deutsch, who shaped the field of conflict resolution after the Second World War.
Today, I feel privileged to lead an institution that is sufficiently broad, deep and nimble to address so many of the world’s most pressing challenges and promising opportunities. Here are some examples of how we’re doing that, all of them critically important.
Stability in a displaced world
The global refugee crisis has displaced more than 60 million people. Immediate efforts have focused on providing food, shelter and medical care, but the longer-term psychological and educational needs of those living in transition have largely been neglected.
At TC, psychologist Lena Verdeli and international education scholars Mary Mendenhall and Susan Garnett Russell are creating a service model for addressing this frightening “new normal.” Dr. Verdeli, Director of TC’s Global Mental Health Lab, is the world leader in helping nations apply Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), a group-based approach shown to counteract depression’s paralyzing effects. The World Health Organization’s manual on IPT largely reflects her ideas and practices. Based on her work in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, Dr. Mendenhall has led development of the UN’s Refugee Teacher Work-ing Group’s new teacher training pack for newly recruited refugee and displaced teachers. Dr. Russell has studied how Rwanda and South Africa teach about their violent pasts and is leading civic education workshops for teachers in Kenya, Malawi and South Africa.
If there is hope for addressing the deeper causes of the refugee crisis, it may lie in work like that of psychologist Peter Coleman, Director of TC’s Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation & Conflict Resolution. Dr. Coleman is a leading expert on resolving intractable conflict — the self-perpetuating cycle that characterizes about five percent of the world’s wars. As described this past spring in Nature, he has adapted a mathematical tool called dynamical systems theory to identify and tease apart the perfect storm of factors that shapes extended conflict. Dr. Coleman received the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award.
Wherever there is conflict in the world, poverty is part of the equation. In the United States, we look primarily to education to help people build better lives — and oneof the truly positive changes on the education scene in recent years is the growing consensus to support increased investment in early childhood education and development. Teachers College has helped lead that charge. Our work has ranged from brain studies showing the potential for early language learning to advances in understanding how young children regulate themselves emotionally, while our own Rita Gold Early Childhood Center models preschool experience that appropriately balances structured learning with an emergent curriculum growing out of children’s interests and spontaneous play.
Making the case for education
We have also launched a new doctoral specialization for those who teach teachers and conduct related research. Our value proposition, which sounds very simple, nevertheless amounts to radical thinking in some circles: Better classroom teaching starts with better teacher educators. Meanwhile, our faculty in other fields continue to build a powerful case for the critical importance of investing in children of all ages. In a paper in Nature Neuroscience, TC neuroscientist Kimberly Noble found an association between family income and children’s brain structure that appears strongest in lower-income families. She is now evaluating whether a boost in the monthly income of low-income mothers translates into increased brain surface area for their children. That finding, she says, “would be a step toward refuting the argument that poverty is a symptom, not a cause.”
Health educator Charles Basch has spent years documenting the connections among poverty, health and fitness, and academic outcomes. In a report recently distributed by the Education Commission of the States, he notes that the proportion of adolescents living in poor and near-poor families increased from 35 percent to 41 percent between 2007 and 2013. With the Children’s Health Fund, Dr. Basch is piloting school-based programs in New York City to demonstrate the impact of systematic screening and management of health-related barriers to learning. In related work, TC’s Campaign for Educational Equity, led by Professor of Practice Michael Rebell, has proposed a new financing strategy that would enable New York State to reduce its share of costs for existing school-based health centers. And in a study in PLOS ONE, Assistant Professor Sonali Rajan has shed new light on gun violence by youth. Where previous work has focused primarily on mental illness, Dr. Rajan’s study identifies more than 40 other behavioral factors connected with gun possession by teens — many of which, including substance abuse and having been injured in a fight, are strongly associated with poverty.
As the United States continues to deploy its armed forces to the world’s most violent regions, the psychological well-being of our courageous men and women in uniform is a pressing concern. Veterans offer society tremendous dedication, skill and experience, but many struggle with the transition to civilian life. Generously funded by visionary donors David and Maureen O’Connor, TC has established a new Resilience Center for Veterans & Families, directed by Professor George Bonanno, the world’s leading authority on human response to loss and trauma. Looking beyond post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects only a very small percentage of veterans, the Resilience Center focuses on understanding the broad spectrum of veterans’ experience. Through the College’s Dean Hope Center for Educational & Psychological Services, led by Dinelia Rosa, the Resilience Center also prepares TC Counseling & Clinical Psychology students to understand military culture and counsel veterans and families.
A safe space for difficult discussions
While war and displacement dominate headlines worldwide, the United States has been riven at home by racial violence and injustice. In his recent book, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence, TC psychologist Derald Wing Sue argues that difficult discussions about race must begin with the effort to understand ourselves as racial, cultural and emotional beings.
I am especially proud that Teachers College has been conducting precisely this kind of searching dialogue. Representing our departments of Arts & Humanities, Math, Science & Technology, and Counseling & Clinical Psychology, Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Lalitha Vasudevan and Laura Smith have led a Civic Participation series, funded by our Provost’s Office, that has offered our community a safe space to respond to events in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island and Baltimore. Also with Provost’s funding, Professor Amy Stuart Wells has mapped academic offerings at TC that deal with race, ethnicity and inter-cultural understanding — areas which are not formal categories in our catalogue, but in which we rank as a national leader. And TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) continues to model schooling that inspires young people of color to become civically engaged to engineer social change.
“Race is the elephant in the room,” IUME’s Director, Ernest Morrell, Macy Professor of Education, has said. “Wherever cities are burning, I guarantee you it has to do with bad public schools. So for me, it’s all about what we can do through education to affirm the substance and power of black life.”
Whether dealing with challenges or opportunities, no single institution has all the answers. Instead, TC convenes conversations and provides tools for making inroads against even the most dauntingproblems. I’ll leave youwith a particularly wonderful example: the work of TC Research Assistant Professor Joey Lee and his students on “gamification” and its application to the issue of global warming. In a study this year in Nature Climate Change, Dr. Lee and doctoral student Jason Wu found that digital games can “serve as engaging tools that allow players to experience the complexities of climate systems...participate in decisions affecting climate change and immediately see the resulting outcomes.” Dr. Lee, who has designed a number of these games himself, believes they are “uniquely suited to get people to understand, care about and take action on climate issues.”
As I think Kurt Lewin would agree, it’s a great theory. Here’s to putting it to work.
--Susan Fuhrman (Ph.D. ’77)
Published Wednesday, Feb 3, 2016